There is a certain caricature of Mumbai that is constantly evoked in popular representations—‘the city of dreams’ that came up from the sea, doting on the city’s unique heritage that remains severed from a history of its origin, where a rich sensation of the present prevails over any nostalgia for the past. These representations celebrate the triumph of ‘will’ over the burden of personal markers (handed down to one by the accident of birth—caste, gender, class, ethnicity) in one’s struggle with fate. In the numerous retelling of this myth, a romance with this enigmatic city is peddled with a democratic and ‘caste-less’ face. Shanta Gokhale breaks this myth and gives a history of Mumbai’s earliest settlers categorized by caste which she claims in her Preface, ‘has been done in the interest of historical truth’. Gokhale’s account of the city she has lived in for over seven decades steers away from the lures of romance and nostalgia. This might surprise readers who were expecting Gokhale’s autobiography to take over the narrative. However, what one gets instead is a very exacting biography of the place, whose history has been lived and studied through numerous sources. Reflecting on her project, Gokhale remarks, ‘A place is like a person. The more you discover the more there is to discover.’ And she allows her engagement with the place of dwelling to flower into a book written with a spirit of an academic researcher. It especially comes out in her attempts to investigate folklore about local icons and their influence on the surrounding. In a chapter dedicated to Bombay Municipality Corporation’s Special Engineer NV Modak’s central place in the history of Shivaji Park, she corroborates existing stories of Modak’s contributions to the sanitation and planning of the city by finding evidence in a report dated 26 October 1954 published in the Economic and Political Weekly.
Gokhale has collated a rich variety of materials that includes interviews, speeches, newspaper reports, books (both journalistic as well as academic), novels and plays. Amongst the many citations, one also interestingly finds the mention of one of Dadar’s residents, Vineet Shrikant Date’s Master’s thesis on the preservation of Dadar West’s historic identity. Gokhale cites Date’s thesis to review the many theories about the naming of Dadar. There isn’t any conclusive theory where the buck stops, but such is Gokhale’s spirit of inquiry that she leaves no ground unchecked in her attempt to bring out the truest picture of Dadar and Shivaji Park’s history. She moves beyond folklore wisdom and does the painstaking work of placing these stories in a veracious written document.